The real world is a scary place.
Not because it’s full of monsters, though we’ll get to that. It’s scary because it’s full of other people. Because it’s full of risks, and setbacks, and harsh truths. It’s scary because to truly look at it, you have to first look at yourself, and acknowledge what you see. Engaging with the real world means acknowledging and embracing every ugly, selfish thing that makes you You, and being honest with yourself is the hardest, scariest thing of all.
Not overt liars, though we’ll get to those. People who lie to themselves. Who distance themselves from parts of their own personality, or replace their exterior reality with a happier, less judgmental internal one. Who want to believe there are monsters out there, because believing their antagonists are monsters means denying their problems are parts of their own heart. Fabricating a false self and a false reality, their lies spawn aberrations – reflections of the truth that wreak terrible consequences in the real world.
Araragi is one such liar, though the consequences of his lies are expressed more subtly than most. His reality certainly displays his smaller, understandable lies – when Monogatari rests on Araragi’s shoulders, the world suddenly finds itself devoid of people who don’t interest him, brimming with comedy, and laced with strange sexuality. But he’s a teenage boy, so none of that is particularly surprising. What really sets him apart is his instinct to “save” others, and outside of being worthless in the context of Monogatari, that by itself is its own kind of disease.
Though the aberrations of this universe often take physical form, defeating them requires attacking the root. A manifestation of absent self-worth can’t simply be destroyed – that self-worth must be regained. But Araragi fights against this, again and again, and over time it becomes clear this is his own aberration, or the nearest thing – a desire to take the pain of others that ends up spilling over into a complete devaluing of the self. His attempts to save Kanbaru might be nobly founded, but they completely disregard the feelings of those who value his own life. For every step forward, he manages to stumble ten steps back. This selfless selfishness takes its most extreme form when Araragi attempts to change the past – though he paints his actions as compassion, his thoughtlessness ends up creating a nightmare reality. He’s not a hero – he’s a teenager with a martyr complex, his selfless acts of heroism really only selfish expressions of his own needs, a blatant disregard for the feelings of the people who need him. And Araragi has not escaped the labyrinth – even through the end of Season Two, Araragi remains the foolhardy self-destructive fulcrum of the show, the one the others must tiptoe around as they make the choices and sacrifices necessary to help those beyond themselves.
Of course, Araragi is far from alone in wanting to externalize his demons. It has an obvious allure – if you believe there’s a monster in your closet, you can deny the monster in your heart. And monsters out there in the real world can be villainized, attacked, destroyed – you can even be rescued from them by others, avoiding personal growth altogether. Hell, you don’t even need to be hiding some unacknowledgeable scar to want to construct your own reality. In Japan and across the world, kids are waking up into a world that no longer offers the promises it once did – where the dream of a stable future is proving itself to be a collective aberration, a lie we’ve all decided to see as truth. And in light of that, it’s incredibly comforting to hide in personal realities. To make a world where the rules make sense and your failure can be comfortably quarantined as Not Your Fault.
Sengoku Nadeko exemplifies this instinct. Just as Araragi is a cynical interpretation of the girl-saving harem protagonist, Nadeko is Isin’s hypothesis of what one of those idolized “helpless little sister” characters might really be like. Hers is a learned helplessness – having realized early on that people leave her alone if she acts shy and flustered, she has slowly sculpted a reality of frightening, inhuman shadows, where her lack of initiative or engagement can’t really be her fault. She can’t stand up for herself, because she is the victim. She can’t pursue the boy she loves, because her love is an unrequited one. Ultimately, this need to justify her own actions through an antagonistic outward reality spawns an aberration – the Snake God, who “forces” her to lash out through the actions she secretly wanted to take all along. Nadeko surrenders utterly to her inner reality, allowing herself to believe there really are monsters out there and in doing so becomes a living representation of the monster inside herself.
A character like Araragi can’t help Nadeko – he’s too trapped in his own version of reality, and again, true growth has to come from acknowledgment of the self. But Monogatari is fundamentally an optimistic show, and not all its characters are so unable to embrace their own demons, and through doing so acknowledge and accept the consequences of their own personalities and being. One such character is Hachikuji Mayoi, and her story, unfortunately, isn’t a happy one. But another is Tsubasa Hanekawa, and her story is a triumph.
Three times Hanekawa faced down her personal demons – demons spawned not of simple expedience, like Nadeko’s, but out of personal, terrible circumstance. Alternately abused or ignored by her adopted parents, she internalizes everything, maintaining the pretense of a civil family life even as her friends question the seams of her cheerful disposition. Instead of acknowledging her own anger, and taking steps to improve her circumstances, she divorces herself from her own emotion – but that doesn’t make the emotion go away. Instead, her lie spawns an aberration, the Cat, who works both of its own will as an outlet for her stress and is even used as a scapegoat for her own willful destruction. Even acknowledging her anger doesn’t bring Hanekawa to actual self-awareness – it takes the appearance of a second aberration, the Tiger, before she fully embraces her hate, jealousy, and every other ugly emotion that makes up her full self. And that moment of embraced identity, when her deadpan acknowledgment of being turned down by Araragi dissolves into tears, is catharsis itself.
That by itself wouldn’t be a particularly uplifting note to end on. The best our heroes can hope for is destruction or honest heartbreak? Well, for three straight arcs after Hanekawa’s finale, that’s about all the optimism the show can offer. But during the very last arc of this season, a glimmer of actual hope is revealed. Hanekawa returns, older, wiser, with a stylish new haircut and a headful of ideas. In her confrontations with Deishu Kaiki, we see a Hanekawa unlike any other character in this series – a Hanekawa fully aware of her own identity, and thus able to see the true substance of others. As Hanekawa lays out her analysis of Nadeko with an acuity even practiced deceiver Kaiki is forced to respect, we see the small kernel of optimism at the center of all Monogatari’s sad, broken character studies. There actually is a light at the end of the tunnel. If you acknowledge yourself, if you face down your own reality and embrace your own monstrous instincts, that brilliant awareness can be turned outwards, used to cast a new light on the exterior world. We are not each condemned to be prisoners of our own realities, but in order to see and save others, we must see and save ourselves. Only then can we see beyond ourselves – only then can we see the monsters that surround us and, knowing full well our own demons make us who we are, smile, and offer our hand.
This optimism is made explicit by the show’s finale, where Kaiki finally extends this hand to the reticent Nadeko. Though he calls himself a master deceiver, that itself is something of a lie – his actual greatest power is his ability to see the truth. As he faces down Nadeko, so invested in her personal reality that she even rationalizes her stagnation as a legitimate embracing of her own flaws, he encourages her to fail. To stop being happy. To return from personal godhood to real-world personhood, where people will sometimes not pity you and sometimes hurt you and sometimes insult your trashy manga. Monogatari doesn’t make any false promises – it knows living is hard, and it knows that acknowledging your failings is only the first step on a long, painful path, where the future is always uncertain. Monogatari makes its characters ugly because it cares about them – because in spite of being a story about liars and the lies they tell, it wants to impart some hard, heartfelt truth. Sometimes we will make honest connections, and sometimes our connections will only cause us pain. But the pain and the hardship and the shame and the struggle of an honest engagement with the real world is the only thing worth anything – the only thing that can bring us towards the selves we want to be, and the only thing that can reveal the ugly, broken, beautiful people around us. Honesty is worth it.